Uneasy with the Gospel
I sometimes begin my homilies with the song "God is so Good".
Today I ask everyone to join in song:
God is so good, God is so good
God is so good, He's so good to me.
He's all I need, He's all I need
He's all I need, He's so good to me.
He cares for me, He cares for me
He cares for me, He's so good to me.
I wonder how many of us really believe those words. After all, it is easy to sing of the goodness of God. But what does it really mean? Where do we experience God's goodness?
In our country we are greatly blessed. We have advantages and opportunities many other people do not. In our situation it is indeed easy to sing of the goodness of God. Yet people in most countries are less fortunate. Around the world people have been denied their most basic rights. When, in spite of their suffering, I hear them sing of the goodness of God, I listen. In America, I must admit, I am often confused.
Today my mind is filled with multiple images of God, for during the last week I have been attempting to gain some new picture and insight into the person we call Jesus. To be honest with you, not all the images are positive. Not all of them convince me of the goodness of God.
Last Sunday I happened to catch one of the televangelists on TV. A popular preacher, his show is carried not only across the country, but also across the oceans. At the end of the program, I turned off the television uneasy with his message. Not because the preacher challenged me—he didn't. I was uneasy because he preached a false gospel, devoid of authenticity. His main point was that God's plan was for all of us to become rich. You wouldn't believe the response of the congregation. The key was to send him all, or most, of our money, after which God would endow us beyond our dreams. It was exactly what everybody wanted to hear. The fact that his message was not in harmony with the teachings of Jesus did not seem to bother him. Nor did it bother his followers who willingly surrendered the requisite amount of money.
After the religion program, I sought reassurance in a movie entitled "Mass Appeal". I had seen the film before, but this time I was looking for something particular—something to encourage me in my own ministry. The two main characters are a contented pastor in an affluent parish, and a young, radical deacon preparing for priesthood. The pastor's name is Fr. Tim Farley, and the deacon is Mark Dolson. The movie centers around the conflict that arises from their different approaches to ministry. The pastor never ruffles the feathers of the congregation. On the other hand, the deacon alienated most of them the first time he preached. Like the televangelist, this movie also left me uneasy. But this time it was because I was challenged.
The young deacon reminded me of what I have always found most compelling about Jesus. Jesus never let things be. He never endorsed the status quo. If you read the gospels carefully, you won't find Jesus telling his audiences: "Hey, folks, everything's fine. Don't worry." On the contrary, he repeatedly called his people to conversion: "Reform your lives, the kingdom of God is at hand." In fact, this proclamation of the kingdom is central to everything that Jesus does and says. He even goes so far as to tell us that only when we have reformed our lives will we be granted admission into the kingdom.
Jesus is the consummate revolutionary. While Mark Dolson is rough around the edges, Jesus is smooth, but no less blunt: "Woe to you rich! Your consolation is now." Try telling that to the guests who are featured on the show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." And yet, they are not the only ones at fault. Across this land the words of Jesus fall on deaf ears and cold hearts. In our society it remains the wealthy and famous who are admired. I've never seen a program called "Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown." Today most children do not want to grow up to be like their parents. They seek to emulate sports figures, actors and musicians.
After watching the movie, and comparing Mark Dolson to the televangelist, I couldn't help but begin thinking of our own parish. We are not a super rich community, but we are certainly comfortable. And most of us are content with our comfort. We may not show up in Church with purple hair and mink hats, but I'm not sure we can justify a parking lot that looks a lot like a Mercedes Benz dealership.
Although most priests are not as crass as some of the ministers on television, there are many pastors like Fr. Farley. They preach silly platitudes with little or no depth. They never challenge us to be more than who we are now. They never bring the real world into the Liturgy where it can be transformed by the power of Jesus. They never risk animating us with the Gospel and Spirit of Jesus.
To demonstrate the issue, I was speaking to a parishioner the other day. She told me that when she attends Mass in other parishes, she often meets some of our parishioners. And the comments are always the same. They stopped going to our church because they don't want to hear about politics. They come to church to feel good, not to be challenged. Some have even gone so far as to claim that there is no spirituality left in our parish. I suppose I am the primary target of those comments, since I frequently raise the so-called political issues in my preaching. And I know that there are people in the congregation today who are either already upset, or are preparing to be. I do not want to be arrogant, but my response is: tell it to Jesus. It is his gospel and it is in his name that I preach. Difficult as it may be for us to comprehend, Jesus has a different approach to spirituality than most of us.
Being spiritual does not mean hearing about holy things. It means being alive. Real spirituality has little to do with pious religious sayings. Real spirituality is being enlivened by the same Spirit that led Jesus on a path of opposition and rejection. Real spirituality draws us into a world of conflict and division and empowers us to transform a selfish society into a caring community. If there is no spirituality left in our parish, maybe it is because we refuse to be challenged and changed by the Spirit.
I suppose most of us do not really want to change. In our own way each of us becomes content with our experiences—there is an ease and comfort about the familiar. In the movie, Fr. Farley did not recognize that his own comfortable patterns had caused him to lose touch with the message and mission of Jesus. His congregation was happy. He was well liked and the parishioners indulged his personal pleasures, with expensive gifts. But there was no spirit. The heart had gone out of the gospel. The people were languishing and no one even knew it.
Into this community walks the young and rash Mark Dolson. In his idealism, Mark knew that it was possible to live as Jesus commanded. He knew that it was possible for people to be concerned about the welfare and survival of one another. He knew that it was possible for people to set aside the selfishness and complacency of wealth, and be renewed in the Spirit. In his exuberance and dedication, he tended at times toward arrogance and intolerance. But is that not the way of all passionate revolutionaries? Jesus often disappointed and even angered his listeners. Those who listened and took the time to think knew that Jesus offered them hope and fulfillment. When others left, Peter could only say to Jesus: "To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life."
Last week Jesus walked again into my life—in the character of Mark Dolson. He left me uneasy and even a little uncertain all week long. Today some of us may be feeling uneasy and uncertain. But today is a day of hope and promise. Jesus has walked once again into our lives. He brings us a new spirit—a spirit of renewal and life. Indeed we were right to sing together God is so good!